Years before urban barbecue became a trend, Danny Meyer and Mark Maynard-Parisi teamed up to open a traditional joint in New York.
Long before the proliferation of casual "urban barbecue" restaurants in New York City, Danny Meyer approached me about an idea he had to bring America's barbecue traditions to the heart of Manhattan. It was a conversation filled with irony and unexpected detours. I was the general manager of Union Square Cafe, and this initial meeting was held at Gramercy Tavern, the number one and two restaurants, respectively, in the Zagat guide. For Danny, a native of St. Louis and a 20-year resident of New York City, his dream made perfect sense. To me, however, it was crazy. I grew up in New England, and I didn't know the difference between a baby back and a pork butt. My only exposure to "barbecue" was in tacky chain restaurants. I had no history, no gauzy memories, and certainly no desire to create a frat party in Manhattan.
But over the next six months, I experienced a slow but steady conversion. I started by reading Smokestack Lightning, by Lolis Eric Elie, which inspired me to arrange a pilgrimage to Memphis with chef Kenny Callaghan, chef Michael Romano, and Danny's business partner, David Swinghamer. That trip opened my eyes to real barbecue culture and made me see the light. In addition to eating 100 times my weight, I met many people who opened their doors and hearts to us and established relationships that are still strong to this day. When we returned, I spent time listening to transplanted Southerners about the traditions of barbecue, and learned about people who were both paying homage to and re-writing the future of Southern cooking in places like Charleston and Birmingham. I joined the Southern Foodways Alliance and learned that there were people who actually studied this stuff. I was hooked. My conversion may have been slow, but it was complete. Months after that first conversation, I truly understood what Danny was talking about. What was an abstract idea in late 2000 became a fleshed out reality in March of 2002, when Blue Smoke opened its doors.
At 10 years old, Blue Smoke's roots have grown deep and wide. New York City barbecue itself has evolved considerably in the past decade, and there are now authentic barbecue restaurants in every borough of the city. This richness has created a community surrounding our collective mission -- to make people happy by serving up real, honest food, strong drinks, and genuine hospitality.
One of the most rewarding things we at Blue Smoke do is host the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, a weekend-long celebration of America's food and music, bringing pitmasters and musicians from around the country to share their gifts with 120,000 adoring fans. No competitions, no quickfire challenges. Just barbecue, music, and people. My favorite day is load-in. Bleary-eyed crews from around the country roll into town early Friday and hang out at the restaurant, waiting for the streets to close so they can start cooking (picture pitmasters carrying whole hogs over their shoulders with a view of the Empire State Building in the distance). Once the first pitmaster fires up his rig Friday night, crowds of New Yorkers trickle onto Madison Avenue to see what that wonderful smell is all about. Throughout the night, well-dressed locals emerge from the fancy restaurants surrounding Madison Square Park and participate in a series of ad hoc master classes taught by the pitmasters.
Block Party weekend exemplifies what barbecue is all about and what we love to do at Blue Smoke -- bringing people together. For our first Block Party, in 2003, we were the only New York barbecue place. But as others opened in and around the city, we invited them to participate. It's a thrill for us that New York's Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Dinosaur, and Rack & Soul stand proudly alongside places like 17th Street, Big Bob Gibson's, and The Salt Lick -- our mentors, and the standard-bearers of barbecue. Oh, and while that first year attracted 5,000 people (despite the torrential downpours), last year's event brought together approximately 130,000 'cue fans! Like me, New Yorkers can't get enough of barbecue. While I sometimes wish that the Block Party could last all year long, its ephemeral nature makes it all the more special. Like Thanksgiving or New Year's Eve, half of the fun is the anticipation and the memories.
Which brings me back to Memphis. On that first pilgrimage, I remember driving our rented white Ford Windstar directly from the airport to the Cozy Corner, whose tradition of legendary barbecue and warm hospitality has been a hallmark since 1977. As we rolled up, I was filled with a sense of nervous anticipation. I had never been to the South, and I had never had barbecue. It was almost a year before opening Blue Smoke, and I was still not sure what we were trying to achieve. As the door creaked open, a lovely woman from behind the counter yelled in a sing-song voice, "How y'all doin' today?" Her smile made us melt. We selected every item on the menu and waited patiently as the team prepared our meal. As the food arrived, we dug in. I can still taste that Cornish hen. On the way out, I thanked the owner for her incredible food and hospitality, to which she said, "You're welcome, I'm glad you liked it. That's what we do. That's barbecue."